Where does memory go when no one survives to tell?
I have always been intrigued by the notion of memory—lost memory, sacred memory, revealed memory…. This is probably related to my own background; I am a daughter of survivors. As I watched my mother’s face entreating the names of her lost family, the Kaddish prayers, the circular motion of her hands at candle lighting, it all seemed to say “bring them back, keep them from fading.”
Reading Yael Shahar’s Returning, and her journey into Ovadya’s past, I immediately knew this would go further than the many Holocaust accounts on my bookshelf. This experience of “returning” would become an unforgettable encounter.
Ovadya’s tragedy is that, after the last of the victims have entered the gas chambers, he is still there, remembering. He loses every vestige of a recognizable human being, becoming a fragmented soul, barely connected to its past.
But from this descent, he ascends through time, emerging at last on the pages of Talmudic discourse. In Rav Ish Shalom’s small study, we are all confronted by questions: “When does survival become a crime?” “When does choice become treason?”
That’s when I found myself yelling at all the holocaust books that line my walls, “I thought we were done with all of this. It’s been over 70 years, what more agony do I need to go through? We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the Shoah….”
It begins with Yael Shahar’s language. Its imagery and power is astounding. Invoking the jars of testimony buried by the Sonderkommando in Birkenau, Ovadya explains: “I am like those buried jars. The memory is buried inside and surfaces in an unpredictable manner. Some is blurred by time or willful forgetting. Some of it is as clear as if no time has passed. And sometimes it is not past at all, but present….”
Returning is about asking hard questions. Many of these questions have never been asked until now, perhaps, because we’ve been too frightened of learning the answers. But the time has come to ask those questions. And in the end, we all stand together as witnesses at the Viddu. Mourners, innocent and the broken, exhausted, fearful… and forgiving. For certain I would be less of who I am, had I not experienced this journey of redemption, this revival, this return.
If you are a child of survivors yearning to connect to your parents’ unspoken past, if you simply want to try to unravel the mystery of human evil, or if you want to understand how it was possible, then Returning is the book to read. But be warned: it may make you understand too much.